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World Press on Victim Blaming, Violent Speech and Rohingya: New Age Islam's Selection, 21 October 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

21 October 2020

• Violent Speech Begets Violent Nation

By Shuprova Tasneem

• Say No To Victim Blaming: A Long March To Brutalities

By Badiuzzaman Bay

• Does Supporting Election Justify Exclusion Of Rohingyas?

By Kamal Ahmed


Violent Speech Begets Violent Nation

By Shuprova Tasneem

October 21, 2020


Photo: Collected


This month, the release of a gang rape video in Noakhali forced us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and confront an ugly but often overlooked reality—women and children are falling victim to sexual violence on a daily basis in Bangladesh. The sheer brutality of the horrific footage inspired nationwide condemnation. People were shocked, ashamed and most of all, enraged.

This rage translated into protests across the country, inspiring debates on exemplary punishments for rapists, the politics of power and patronage that allows criminals to act with impunity, wider institutional reforms to ensure the justice system acts for victims and not against them, and the entrenched norms in our society that contribute to rape culture and asks the rape survivor to "share the blame" of the crime committed against them. This was especially scrutinised after two men from hugely different backgrounds, actor Ananta Jalil and Hefazat secretary general Junaid Babunagari, expressed similar views regarding the importance of women's "decent" dress to avoid enticing men into violent crimes like rape.

In the midst of these heated debates, another less conspicuous but equally normalised thread of violence has emerged: the continuous and constant vitriol and hatred expressed online against women.

According to the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech: "the term hate speech is understood as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor. This is often rooted in, and generates intolerance and hatred and, in certain contexts, can be demeaning and divisive."

The Gender Equality Strategy paper of the Council of Europe further elaborates on hate speech targeted at women: "Sexist hate speech takes many forms both online and offline, notably victim blaming and re-victimisation; "slut-shaming"; body-shaming; "revenge porn" (the sharing of explicit or sexual images without consent); brutal and sexualised threats of death, rape and violence; offensive comments on appearance, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender roles; but also false compliments or supposed jokes, using humour to humiliate and ridicule the target."

The most obvious expression of online sexist hate speech in Bangladesh is the view that "certain kinds" of women invite rape upon themselves or deserve to be raped. These comments have been made about protestors criticising capital punishment as an easy-fix solution (what do they expect, walking around at night dressed like that?), about social media commentators questioning misogyny and entrenched sexist views (these women just mimic Western ideas and mix freely with men, then complain when they are raped), about activists trying to start conversations on marital rape (their husbands sure need to teach them a lesson), and about any woman in general who expressed a view that may not fit neatly into certain traditional (read: patriarchal) ideas on society and women's roles in it.

In all of these comments, a running thread is the demeaning and humiliating language used to reduce women into being nothing more than body parts, and the suggestion that women who do not behave in certain ways deserve to be punished somehow. The most widely discussed example of this in recent days was an alleged comment by a ruling party student leader at the Dhaka University campus on how "all women deserve to be free of sexual violence, except those with anti-liberation ideas." Although the leader vehemently insisted he had been misquoted, the incident is not unrepresentative of the views of many men regarding women whose opinions and ideas they are not on board with.

This month, one example of this form of hate speech was widely circulated—a Facebook post titled "how to rape a girl" went viral, and one youth was subsequently arrested by Rab on October 11. This decision to use the Digital Security Act to shut down such violent rhetoric against women was widely lauded online. However, this arrest only shows how indiscriminately the DSA can be used. Why arrest this one man only when there was pressure on the government to act on violence against women, when it is suggested that 73 percent of female users of online spaces in Bangladesh have faced some form of violence, and the numbers are continuously on the rise?

It must be stressed that in no way can one support the draconian DSA, which grants sweeping powers to the executive and the prosecuting authorities and allows them to arbitrarily decide offences according to vague and ill-defined criteria. However, we must remember that cyber harassment of women was cited often enough as a reason for enacting the DSA, yet there is nothing within the Act that actually criminalises it. The closest it comes to is the controversial Section 25, according to which, sharing "offensive or fear-inducing" information, or information that you know to be false, "with the intention to annoy, insult, humiliate or denigrate a person", can land you in jail for three years on the first count.

Have women not been annoyed, insulted, humiliated or denigrated enough online? Or do they not count as "persons"? Even as the poorly worded DSA opens up avenues to use it to silence differing opinions, it is ironic that it has mostly been wielded against journalists, cartoonists and musicians and not sadists and sexists who fantasise online about torturing women. If nothing, it once again proves that laws that clamp down on freedom of speech almost always end up targeting the wrong kind of speech, where hate continues but dissent gets drowned out.

The campaign of online verbal violence against women is not a new phenomenon. The issue is not just the existence of certain sexist views that are totally against the notion of equal rights for women and men (as enshrined in the Constitution), but that opposition to these views are so often met with blind hatred that quickly descends into violent language. The implication is that if women behave with any more agency than is desired, they must be put back into their place with the appropriate punishment. This desire to dominate and humiliate, to be obeyed or gain that obedience by force, is a classic trait of toxic masculinity that is all too prevalent in our society.

All of this is symptomatic of a society that has been seduced by violence and is now firmly in its grips. The dehumanisation of women that allows men to go online and identify rape victims who "deserved it", or mock women who "complain" about being raped by their husbands (because how can you force yourself on someone who is already your property?), is the same dehumanisation that leads to rape in the first place. It is also this dehumanisation that pushes us to demand death penalty for rapists, or to say that drug dealers deserve extrajudicial killings rather than fair trials. Our violent tendencies manifest in different ways—sometimes as online hate speech, sometimes as considering certain classes of society as being sub-human and thus less deserving of justice, and sometimes as violence against women and children. It is all part of the same spectrum, and we cannot deal with one if we continue to wilfully ignore the others.


Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


Say No to Victim Blaming: A Long March to Brutalities

By Badiuzzaman Bay

October 20, 2020


At around 11:30 am on Saturday, the demonstrators came under attack allegedly from the activists of local Awami League, Jubo League and Chhatra League units after they had concluded a rally in the Shaheed Minar area of Feni. Photo: Star


It could have been just another episode in the regular show of police and ruling party men merrily clamping down on the "disturbers of public peace" who love to play with people's emotions with their pesky ideas and noisy chants of human rights abuses. Usually, there would be the clean-up after that, with the cheerleaders stepping in and going through the ritual of handing out half-baked stories about who attacked whom first, and that would be the end of it. No subtlety would be expected, because there would be none. 

But this particular episode went off the rails to become a farce so incongruous and so bleak that it tests the mind. It took place on Saturday, in Feni, although the story began a day earlier. On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators led by some left-leaning parties embarked on a two-day Long March from Dhaka to Noakhali to protest against the growing incidents of rape in the country. Their spray-painted slogans—"Silence is unjust when humanity is affected", "End the culture of impunity", "Rape and crossfire are the government's weapons", "Say no to victim blaming", and "We want the resignation of the failed home minister" (The Daily Star)—offered a condensed history of yet another tumultuous week in Bangladesh which began after the brutal assault and gang rape of a Noakhali woman, on video, by men loyal to the ruling Awami League. For many in the crowd, it was the final spark to a reservoir of pent-up anger and despair.

At around 11:30 am on Saturday, the demonstrators came under attack allegedly from the activists of local Awami League, Jubo League and Chhatra League units after they had concluded a rally in the Shaheed Minar area of Feni. According to media reports, the attackers used sticks and rods to beat the protesters and vandalised several buses carrying them. Police have given a different version of the story, however. Mainul Islam, an additional superintendent of police in Feni, told The Daily Star that it was not an attack but a "scuffle" that broke out after "derogatory comments" were made against the local MP at the rally. "In protest, his followers brought out a procession. Activists from the Long March chased the followers of the lawmaker and a scuffle ensued," he said.

If you have seen the video clips that surfaced on social media following the attack, you may have different ideas about what really transpired, but the glib label of "scuffle" will surely not be one of them. One somewhat graphic clip takes us inside one of the buses where a protester lay unconscious, with several others with cuts and bruises, and blood stains visible on the floor of the bus. The camera then cuts to a scene in a hospital where you hear the wailing of the injured, and then to another scene showing shards of broken glass strewn across the road near the buses. What police described as a scuffle initiated by anti-rape protesters ended up injuring at least 35 of them, 10 suffering severe injuries. Equally shockingly, it was the police that reportedly abetted the ruling party thugs to launch their attacks and ransack the buses.

With "friends" like these, who needs enemies, right?

The juxtaposition of the three protagonists of this episode—the protesters, the police, and the ruling party men—acquires special significance when we consider the following facts. First, what police officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, did is significant not just for the fact that they were supposed to aid peaceful protesters instead of their attackers but also for the timing of their unholy cameo performance. As it transpired, the day the police chose to crack down on the anti-rape protesters was also the day when Bangladesh Police held rallies in 6,912 beat areas across the country to "create public awareness against rape and violence against women!" The irony of the matter is inescapable. The irony thickens when, the next day, the DMP commissioner claims that more than 95 percent of people "expressed satisfaction with the police service in filing GDs and cases with police stations", although police have yet to file a case against Saturday's attackers in Feni. All this throws into sharp relief the enormous divide between what the police say and what they do in terms of law enforcement.

Moving onto the next protagonist—men from the Extended AL Universe, particularly Chhatra League. No one would like to hold Chhatra League to its word, but if you closely observe its responses during the last three nationwide movements—road safety, quota reforms, and now rape—a chilling pattern emerges. Let me just lay out the facts and you can have your own conclusion.

The organisation that was allegedly behind the assaults on anti-rape protesters in Feni and has had allegations of rape slapped against many of its members is also one that, just last week, brought out a "celebration rally" after the cabinet's approval of an amendment to our central law on women and children repression (with the provision for death penalty as the maximum punishment for single perpetrator rape). In August 2018, this same organisation allegedly caused immense sufferings to the students involved in the movement for safer roads, and yet it had the nerve to bring out a celebration rally after the cabinet's approval of the draft of Road Transport Act 2018, which literally ended the movement. In April 2018, this very organisation again allegedly tried to derail the quota reform movement, and yet it was the one that brought out a celebration rally after the provision for quota in government jobs was abolished.

What do these facts tell us about this organisation? There can be many explanations. But several stand out to me: first, its moral and ideological fluidity; second, its proclivity to simultaneously sabotage (through attacks) and hijack (through organising celebration rallies) the biggest student and sociocultural movements of our time; third, its strategic position as the first line of defence against any movement involving students; fourth, its lack of concern for the well-being of general students; fifth, its eagerness to use force and lack of tolerance for critical thoughts; and finally, its immunity as an organisation, regardless of what crimes its members and operatives commit. From the frequent collaborations of law enforcement agencies with the organisations affiliated with the ruling party, it would also appear that the state is outsourcing part of policing tasks to these unruly groups, which is a disturbing development in and of itself.

The Saturday attack marks a dangerous turn in the so far largely peaceful trajectory of protests to end our pervasive rape culture. It lays bare the truth behind the fiction, and portends a long and difficult journey for the anti-rape activists. Some have questioned Chhatra League and Jubo League's moral organisational stand on rape following the attack. But I think it's immaterial to the wider question of violence against women, and has more to do with men as individuals.

By announcing the provision of the death penalty for single perpetrator rape in response to the anti-rape movement and then allowing attacks on those protesting rape the government is giving mixed messages to the people. The government has made its sincerity to stop the rape culture clear. Statements by ministers and state officials will attest to that. But we need more in the way of action. Can it walk the rest of the path by bringing in necessary legal and institutional reforms necessary to prevent rape from happening, give boost to rape trials and protect the victims and witnesses? The contrasting pictures that are coming out of its camp do not leave much room for hope.


Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


Does Supporting Election Justify Exclusion Of Rohingyas?

By Kamal Ahmed

October 20, 2020

The European Union, barely three weeks before the general election in Myanmar, held a bilateral dialogue on human rights with the regime seeking re-election. Following the dialogue, a joint statement issued on October 14 by the EU and Myanmar noted that the EU reaffirmed its strong support for Myanmar's democratic transition, notably in the context of Myanmar's upcoming general election, as well as for its peace and reconciliation process and inclusive socio-economic development. 

In the 393-word statement, however, not once did the term Rohingya appear, which describes the distinct identity of the ethnic minority group that has been the subject of a prolonged persecution in Myanmar since the enactment of the Citizenship law in 1982 that stripped them of their nationality. It is quite shocking as it ignores the fact that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) earlier this year in its interim order affirmed Rohingyas as a distinctive ethnic group of Myanmar and ordered that country to protect the remaining Rohingya population.

The EU's official press release only said that Myanmar and the EU discussed a wide range of human rights matters, including the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, humanitarian access and the situation of Internally Displaced Persons, accountability for alleged human rights violations, fundamental rights and freedoms, economic, labour and social rights, rights of women and human rights cooperation in multilateral fora. According to the EU release, the EU encouraged Myanmar to continue to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and took note Myanmar's efforts in the implementation of its National Strategy for the Closure of Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. The Advisory Commission or the Kofi Anan Commission's recommendations about reconciliation and rebuilding, predates the 2017 Clearance Operation. 

It is also quite intriguing that the statement does not mention anything about the long overdue repatriation of more than a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, among them the majority, over 700,000, had to flee their homeland following a security clearance operation carried out by the Myanmar military. The United Nation's Human Rights chief likened the clearance operation with a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. The UN fact-finding mission in 2019 also concluded that killings, rapes and gang rapes, torture, forced displacement and other grave rights violations by the country's military had prompted some 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017. It said hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya who remain in Myanmar may face a greater threat of genocide than ever, amid government attempts to "erase their identity and remove them from the country."

When the bilateral talks on human rights were taking place, reports were coming out from the troubled Arakan State of continuing indiscriminate attacks against civilian population including aerial bombing, arsoning and use of mines by the military in the name of tackling another alleged insurgent group, the Arakan Army. A leading rights group, the Amnesty International on October 12 called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, ICC. It seems that the EU is not willing to use all its tools and opportunities to press Myanmar on meaningful and visible behavioural changes. Or else, it is incomprehensible that they were not aware of those disturbing developments. It has now emerged that on the same day, UN agencies in Myanmar had expressed their "sadness" and "shock" over the killing of two boys allegedly used as human shields by security forces in the country's northern Rakhine province, earlier this month.

Another disturbing development involving the EU is that it has funded an election app in Myanmar that helps incite "racial and religious vilification" in the country by profiling candidates' ethnicity and beliefs, using derogatory terminology to designate those of Rohingya descent. The mVoter 2020 application has been developed under the EU-funded STEP Democracy Project, which claims to support "inclusive, peaceful and credible electoral processes" in Myanmar, in order to assist the democratic transition in the country. According to rights groups, however, the app, exacerbates religious tensions and contributes to the discrimination of subjugated Rohingya minorities. The app listed Rohingyas as "Bengali", a term that suggests these individuals are immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya community believe the term is applied in a derogatory context, taking into account the human rights abuses and persecutions they have been subjected to.

Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for the rights group Justice for Myanmar said, "According to democratic values, voters should judge candidates on their merits, not based on their religion or outdated categories of 'race' which, in the case of the Rohingya, means denial of their identity." Listing Rohingya candidates as "Bengali" on the app, was allegedly the reason for the election commission to disqualify at least one candidate from taking part in the upcoming elections.

Reports from Myanmar suggest the National Democratic League (NLD) and its leader Aung San Su Kyi face very little challenge in the elections. Unless the powerful military makes any surprise moves, renewal of her government's mandate is almost certain. It is therefore, plausible that in the absence of a credible alternative, western powers are preparing themselves for a continuation of a working relationship with Su Kyi, despite all her shortcomings.

Her government's continued complicity with the military, however, brings more frustration and anguish to the victims of the atrocities and dashes their hopes for justice. Hence, president of the Burma Rohingya Organisation in UK, Tun Khin, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, calls Myanmar's democratic election a sham and warns the international community not to be fooled by it. His concerns are not unjustified.


Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.



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